TAMPA - Everyone knew a little about 'Preacher Man,' yet in very different ways. But no one knew enough.
Detectives at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office only knew him as a body. He was discovered Nov. 8, 2010, badly decomposed, in a secluded, wooden area just off Hillsborough Avenue, about 50 feet from the CSX railroad tracks.
They knew he was in his 40s or 50s when he died of natural causes. They knew he was a homeless man whose first name was Mike. And they knew he had a nickname: 'Preacher Man.'
But they didn't know much else.
A homeless man who lived nearby also knew 'Preacher Man.'
Sitting on a mattress, underneath the overpass where he sleeps, the homeless man did not sugarcoat the truth: 'Preacher Man' was once a heroin addict.
But after his most recent trip to jail, 'Preacher Man' turned his life around, the homeless man said. He stopped taking drugs and began talking about God to anyone who would listen.
"He wasn't a real good talker," the homeless man admitted. "He was just a person who said 'Hey, I believe in God. I love God. And this is how my life is going to be now.'"
The homeless man knew 'Preacher Man' as a "kind soul" who had died in the woods nearby.
But he didn't know if 'Preacher Man' had a family. And he didn't know Preacher Man's last name.
Not knowing 'Preacher Man's last name was a problem for detectives at the Sheriff's Office.
Without it, they couldn't figure out his real identity. He was also too badly decomposed for anyone to recognize him, so they couldn't inform his family he had passed away.
"He was a human being and we know he has to have family out there somewhere," said Larry McKinnon, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. "We'd really like to find out who he is so we can get some closure for that family."
So they asked for the help of a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Florida named Erin Kimmerle.
Kimmerle did not know 'Preacher Man.' But, with her expertise, she could find some things out.
She specializes in facial reconstructions, a process that involves taking a skull and projecting what a face would have looked like on top of it.
Kimmerle first places 'tissue depth markers' on the skull. They look like tiny thumb tacks and serve as "references" for Kimmerle about size and location of different parts of the face.
Kimmerle inputs the tissue depth marker data into her computer and uses the data to build the face on top of the skull. A process that was once accomplished using clay can now be completed on Adobe Photoshop.
Once it's done, Kimmerle hopes to have a "good representation or estimation of what that person looked like." It can be remarkably accurate.
That was her goal with 'Preacher Man.' She knew nothing about him. But, with his skull and a computer, she hoped she now knew what he looked like.
It took less than a second.
The homeless man who knew 'Preacher Man' had been given a copy of Kimmerle's facial reconstruction. He wasted no time.
"That's him, right there!" he said, showing no hesitation.
He grabbed the paper and started to point at it. Other than taking off 'Preacher Man's' beard and adding a scar just below 'Preacher Man's' eye, the man said Kimmerle's facial reconstruction was accurate.
Detectives, the homeless man and Kimmerle all knew a little about 'Preacher Man.' They had combined their information to piece together his life even more.
They knew his nickname. They knew where he lived. They now knew what he looked like.
But they still don't know enough.
They're hoping you might know the rest.
If you recognize 'Preacher Man' from Kimmerle's facial reconstruction, call the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at (813) 247-8200.
You can also remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS (8477).
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